Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Joy of Cooking (with Bacon Grease)

In the film Julie & Julia, and in the original blog as well if I recall correctly, Julie Powell poses the question -- which I tended to assume was pretty much rhetorical -- "Is there anything better than butter?"  Her clear implication is that there is absolutely nothing better than butter, and while I would love to agree so completely, I found myself answering to the contrary today.

"Bacon grease," I said with confidence.

The key difference, however, is that you can use large quantities of butter in recipes with relative ease.  I can't imagine making pastry with bacon grease.  But when it comes to such activities as frying an egg or a few potatoes or even sliced zucchini, bacon grease is decidedly the way to go.

I might even go so far as to credit bacon grease with the success of my almost omelette this morning.  Eggs thoroughly whisked with a handful of feta cheese and poured into a hot greased frying pan.  The flip wasn't a complete success, but it was much closer than I have managed in the past, and the feta melded into the eggs beautifully.

So little goes so far and generously gives whatever is cooked in it as rich, full, delicious flavor.  A scant teaspoon coated an entire sliced zucchini in deliciousness.  My mouth practically waters just thinking about it.

A bit of bacon, a bit of omelette and a bit of zucchini on my fork creates a delectable mouthful.  (Somehow I have gone from being one of those people who eats every item on the plate separately to one who insists on combining as many of the foods as possible.  I'm not quite sure how or when that change happened.)

Bacon isn't something that appears on the menu in my kitchen all that often, which may be part of the reason that it is so appreciated when it does.  When I was cooking green beans for Thanksgiving, I decided to add a bit of bacon to them.  I steamed the fresh snapped green beans for a few minutes, and while they were steaming I chopped up a few slices of raw bacon and threw them into a sauce pan.  Once the bacon was mostly cooked, I drained off most of the fat and then threw the just steamed green beans into the pan.

At that point I realized how much easier it had been to cook the bacon in the sauce pan than it generally was to cook in a frying pan.  There was less splattering.  There was no need for flipping because all I had to do was stir the smaller pieces in the sauce pan.  Chopped up and in a sauce pan is now how I cook bacon.

The one tiny drawback is that it can be deceptively easy to overcook the bacon using this method, but I have since learned to pay a little closer attention and all is well.

Of course, only a very little bacon grease can kill you if you don't combat the potential evil with exercise, but when I sit down and enjoy foodstuffs fried in bacon grease, I have a hard time believing that life could possibly get any better.

Friday, January 22, 2010

For the love of feline friends

Cats have been a part of my life since the summer after my fourth birthday. 

My mother came home from the local farmers’ market with two small fur balls who had the audacity to peer out at her from a laundry basket, and Mittens and Tinkerbell came into our lives.

Sadly, Tinkerbell the tortoiseshell had an unfortunate encounter with the large brown Boxer/Great Dane mix already in residence at the house on Westminster Place and was not with us long.

On the other hand, Mittens, the dapper gentleman in the gray and white tuxedo, was a member of the family for twenty-one years.

Since the arrival of those first two, many cats have passed through my life and the lives of my family and friends.

The current feline resident of my little house on Water Street is Minerva – a resplendent, although perhaps bordering on rotund, black longhair completely at peace with her surroundings and welcoming to anyone who might come to bask in her majestic cuteness.  She’s only trying to look fierce in this picture.

In honor of furry family past and present, I feel compelled to share the following two postings.  As a word of caution, the first is quite heartbreaking, and if you aren’t at least sniffling by the end, you are made of stern, inhuman stuff.  On the bright side, the second link provides something of an antidote, so I invite you to read and enjoy and remember and perhaps hug your own furry friends a little closer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Neil Gaiman and the New Yorker

I seemed to be a bit obsessed with Neil Gaiman these days, and especially his relationship with Amanda Palmer.  They're just so cute and in love and obviously crazy about each other.  In a world of so much bad news, it's cheering to see.  It doesn't hurt that Amanda Palmer is one of those crazy, smart, outgoing women I like to pretend that I could be.

I was thoroughly entertained by Neil Gaiman's most recent blog entry:

I especially liked the bit about Amanda Palmer and Guest, for a number of reasons.  First of all, he is the "famous" one who actually got the invitation because of Coraline, and second because you can just tell that he absolutely loved being completely eclipsed by her.

Then there is their engagement photo:

Someday I really am going to read Sandman in its entirety.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

One Down, Fifty-one to Go

I seem to have be having a love affair with France.  I'm not quite sure where it started.  I grew up watching Julia Child's television show The French Chef, but there wouldn't have been any reason to make a connection between Julia and Paris or France.  It was about food and cooking, so perhaps what I really should be writing about is the love affair with food.  How people cannot love and appreciate truly good food, carefully prepared and made with quality ingredients, is completely beyond me.

My choice of reading has a lot to do with it.  There was A Pig in Provence and then The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, which actually took place in Paris.  Then there was Julie & Julia, which was a lovely reminder of the wonder of Julia Child.  I even read part of Julie Powells blog -- which led to the book and the movie -- and I should probably read the rest to see how the original turned out.  I have not yet managed to read Appetite for Life and My Life in France, but they are, of course, on my list.

I have acquired a few volumes by M.F.K. Fisher and Judith Jones, and have even begun to read Secret Ingredients, the anthology of food writing from the New Yorker.

The animated film Ratatouille fits in here somehow, although I am not exactly sure how, and the film adaptation of Julie & Julia, which is also based on My Life in France, is truly delightful.  I think that the film version of The Devil Wears Prada and the television series Highlander and The Raven have probably contributed to the Parisian infatuation as well.

I have even started off my reading new year with food and Paris.

I finally finished reading my first book of the year last Sunday, which is now dangerously close to a week ago, and I doubt that I am realistically close to finishing another in the next twenty-four hours or so to keep up the pace.

Not exactly a rip roaring start toward my annual goal of a book a week, but at least it's a start.

The book in question is The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious and Perplexing City by David Lebovitz.

The Sweet Life is part memoir, part travel guide, part cookbook, and I enjoyed all of it.

Fifty pages into it, and I fell in love with the city and the food all over again.

There is a deceptively simple recipe for chocolate cake which I have tried and failed at once, but I am prepared to try again.

Delicious recipes aside, I find the storage recommendations which Lebovitz includes at the end of his recipes to be the most thoughtful and helpful.

As one might have heard or expect, the French take food very seriously.  "In France, calling yourself a chef carries a lot of responsibility.  It's not just someone who tosses a piece of fish on the grill, drizzles it with olive oil, and tops it with a sprig of thyme.  That makes one a cook, not a chef.  A chef is someone who has the responsibility for composing menus, managing food costs, overseeing a staff, and most important, has usually risen through the ranks the hard way.  Many begin scrubbing pots and pans in the dishroom when they can barely reach the sink, and no job is too menial."  (pg. 245)

Lebovitz did not begin his career in food quite so early, but he has certainly paid his dues by working his way up and even overcoming a few of his fears.

If nothing else, I have discovered another reason to move to or at least spend some time in Paris -- if Lebovitz is to be believed, that is.  Given the historic expatriate community of Hemingway and company, I am inclined to believe him when he says, "In a nation of readers, writers are revered in France lik pro gootball players are in America.  And if you write about chocolate and ice cream [as he does] and make killer brownies, you're like the one who scored the winning field goal for the home team." (pg. 219)

Now all that remains for me to do is to write and publish something that the French care to read.

What I also think it might mean is that telling someone in France that writing is your occupation will be met with less skepticism and disdain than it often is in the United States, provided you can back up your claim, of course.  All the more reason to keep practicing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I have long suspected that Sherlock Holmes is a scoundrel.

All I had to do was wait for Robert Downey, Jr. to come along and confirm my suspicions.

I have always wanted to believe that Holmes came by his knowledge through experience and experimentation rather than simply sitting in his study by the fire, wrapped in a smoking jacket, puffing on his pipe.

Downs’ Holmes is rumpled and frequently in desperate need of a shower and a shave.  His rooms are clearly losing the entropy battle, although I am sure that there should be no doubt that their inhabitant knows where everything is.  The dressing gown in which he shrouds himself is a thing of beauty – almost a character unto itself.  If I didn’t know better, I would swear that it is being held together by duct tape.

Jude Law, on the other hand, is quite forgettable as Watson.  A faithful and able sidekick to be sure, despite the smug, satisfied look glued onto his face, implying that he is actually the one who knows best, but it is the women who leave an indelible impression.  (Perhaps it is their more colorful wardrobe, while Watson is forever wearing the same brown suit.)  I believe that there is the suggestion of a limp in Law’s portrayal of the good doctor, but that may simply have been Law’s performance.

Lord Blackwood is a sinister enough villain, but it’s a little difficult to take seriously a man who insists on wearing a long black leather coat with wide lapels which makes him look like Count von Count from Sesame Street, a look accentuated by close cropped hair and protruding ears.  Not being able to take this particular nemesis seriously doesn’t much matter, however, because it’s the man lurking in the shadows who actually deserves your interest.

The ladies round out the cast, nicely filling in the gaping holes left by the supporting men, and not solely by virtue of their fabulous wardrobes.  Mary Reilly is brilliant in the minor role of Mary Morstan, Watson’s intended.  She and the great detective get off to a bit of a shaky start, but once she realizes that the reservoir of Holmes’ emotion is as deep as her own, she no longer sees him as competition for her fiance’s affection.

Not having read all of Holmes’ adventures myself, Irene Adler is a woman I know almost exclusively by reputation, and Rachel McAdams does justice to that reputation.  She is a delightful combination of ally and adversary.  It’s not hard to see why they find their weakness in one another.

The plot moves along nicely, with sub plots and bits of back story to keep things interesting without overcomplicating them, but it’s all preparation.  Consider Sherlock Holmes the setup for the main event.  The boys of Baker Street are introducing themselves to pique your curiosity and whet your appetite.  The next movie is where the real action is going to be, but it never hurts to have had a proper introduction.

There is some unconventional cinematography (perhaps meant to hearken back to a time when editing didn’t have the potential to be so seamless), and the soundtrack jangles to the point of being jarring.  There is even a bit of a Keystone Cops feel to some of the fight scenes, but ultimately the film sticks to the tried and true formula of any Holmes story: the seemingly fantastic and impossible have a completely logical -- often ordinary and sometimes intricate -- explanation.  All that needs to be done to solve the puzzle is for someone to be paying close attention to the facts rather than the distractions.  Very close attention.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Martha, Martha, Martha

Lots of people think that Martha Stewart is amazing, and they would like nothing more than to be her, or at least be able to all of the snazzy and creative things that she does.

Lots of other people think that Martha Stewart is evil, or at least can't stand her.

Either way, she inspires a lot of strong feelings and opinions.

I used to be closer to the latter line of thinking than the former.  It wasn't so much that I thought she was evil as that so many of her ideas and projects struck me completely impractical.  She elevated the rank of domestic goddess to absurdity.

Then a number of years ago, when there was still the faintest semblance of television reception in my household, I had a few opportunities to watch her show.  It was about the same time that more of my reading started to be about food, and I realized that while a lot of her ideas and projects still definitely did not fit into my world in any way, a lot of what Martha is about is food because she is the domestic goddess and food is a necessary component to home making and entertaining.  After all, at a dinner party, a fabulous meal can compensate for lackluster surroundings far better than fabulous surroundings can compensate for mediocre food.  So I started paying closer attention.

She's no Julia Child, of course, but Martha has the advantage of appreciating and enjoying good food as well as being health conscious, and no matter how much I swear up and down that there are foods that I will never give up no matter how bad they might be for me, I ultimately would like to find a balance of food that is good for me (or at least not life threatening) while being the kind of delicious that stimulates the happy pleasure centers in my brain.

I bought one of her cookbooks.  I started buying the Thanksgiving issue of Martha Stewart Living.  Now -- due to, I must admit, collecting Coca Cola rewards points -- I am a subscriber to both Living and Everyday Food.  (Every once in a while, one of my favorite vices finds a way to redeem itself.)

My first issue of Everyday Food only arrived the other day, and I have not yet had time to read it, but I have received three issues of Living so far, and I have devoured every single one.

The February issue has reminded me that making my own granola should be near the top of my cooking project list.  The tempting recipes include Potato-Onion Frittata (which will amaze my mother since I used to refuse to eat onions) and Steamed Salmon with Avocado (which reminds me that I need to find out what fleur de sel is), and mushroom risotto.  I want to try her Classic White Bread recipe (most likely the cinnamon raisin variation) just to see how it stacks up against other bread recipes I have tried.

The theme of the issue is, of course, Valentine's Day, which generally doesn't do much for me, but I find myself seduced by the Cloud Cupcake.  It looks a bit deadly -- as in, even one might be too much -- and cupcakes are most definitely not my forte, but I am intrigued, curious and tempted all the same.

There is even a full page ad for Cabot cheese which has a ravioli recipe I want to try (because making my own ravioli is also on the cooking project list).

In somewhat the same vein, an article about remodeling a farmhouse has me wishing for the range (from apparently), although not necessarily the extended version shown in the photograph.

Okay, if I am honest, the whole article has me wishing for a remodeled farmhouse of my own.

As with her show, and everything Martha, there are still plenty of her ideas which are beyond me, but they are fun to read about and look at, and occasionally I find something that I can actually use.  What really keeps my interest is the recipes.  I have to admit that I love the articles about food -- whether for simple meals or extravagant entertainment -- and the photographs have me devouring the recipes on the page.

There are those who may scoff, and there are those who may disagree with her methods, but I don't care what anyone says.  The woman knows what she is talking about, and I intend to learn from her.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Musical note

Every once in a while, a piece of music sneaks up and surprises me.

Today I was running a bit later than usual to work, so I got to hear a segment on the local classical music station called Keith's Classical Corner.  (Keith in this case is Keith Lockhart, the current conductor of the Boston Pops.)

Today's featured composer was Pablo de Sarasate, who was also a violin virtuoso.

His Carmen Fantasy and Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) are his most famous works, but Keith (yes, we're on a first name basis -- isn't everyone?) selected Scottish Airs (which I can't seem to find online anywhere but which can be found on the cd Sarasate: Virtuoso Works for Violin).

The piece starts off fairly slow, and I found my mind wandering to other subjects, just sort of thinking about my day and trying to organize the chaos of my mind a bit.  After a minute, this cheery little tune was filling my car, and I found myself happily smiling along.

It's a great way to start the day, especially if you aren't quite sure how it is going to go.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Because when I am not writing, I am knitting.

I had to have a case of Coca Cola remind my that it is time for the winter Olympics.  (Of course, being a bit of a Greek nerd, I still protest the games every two years.  By definition an Olympiad is divisible by four.  2010 is not evenly divisible by 4.  Therefore, 2010 is not an Olympiad.  I'm sure that it's about money and whatever, and I don't even have television programming available in my house, so I really should be beyond caring and complaining.)

Then a co-worker and fellow knitter told me about the Ravelympics being held by the knitting networking site  In the Ravelympics, knitters cast on with the opening ceremonies and bind off for the closing ceremonies.  Two weeks to complete an entire project.

The challenge for me would be two-fold -- complete the knitting project *and* keep up my commitment to writing, which means writing something new every day and revising something already written.

It has a bit of a NaNoWriMo feel to it.  I just need to be careful about selecting a project I can realistically finish in two weeks.  A fancy scarf should be doable.  A sweater, not so much.  It should be something challenging but fun.

Maybe it could even be something that I end up keeping.  One of my favorite things about knitting is giving away the things that I make.  People love hand knitted things.  And they really love hand knitted things made specifically for them.  It's the coolest thing.  Even complete strangers love hand knitted things, hopefully as much as I love making them.

A friend of mine and I recently had a conversation about doing things for other people simply because it brings them pleasure and how the simple act of doing something pleasurable for someone else brings the doer pleasure.  That's a lot of pleasure, don't you think?

More people really should try it, even and especially if it isn't a grand gesture.  Who knows, you might even find something new to enjoy in the process.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I resolve to be resolute ... and focused.

I'm generally not much for New Year's resolutions.  I procrastinate enough as it is, so limiting myself to waiting for one particular day of the year to come around so that I can make positive changes in my life seems to me to be asking for trouble.

If you want to change, start right now, I say.  Seize the day with a barbaric yawp and all that.  And if it doesn't work out anywhere near as well as you planned, well, then start again tomorrow.

The last several months of last year really beat the snot out of me in a number of ways, however, so I am going to take this opportunity to pretend that a new year really does make a difference and start over, start fresh.  As a friend of mine put it, not so much wiping the slate clean as putting it in the back of the garage and starting an entirely new one.

Who's with me?

I thought so.

I don't know what you all have planned, but I am going to be proactive, assertive and have a positive attitude, perhaps with a healthy dose of focus thrown in for good measure.  I am going to embrace my role as the office ambassador in my place of employment as I work with clients and all of the different internal departments.  I often have a pretty clear view from the middle, and I am going to see it as an asset rather than a liability and a source of stress and aggravation.  I'm going to see if I can finally get my work and my life to get along, or at least come to an uneasy truce.  I am going to balance my personal goals and aspirations with my responsibilities -- as soon as I figure out what my personal goals and aspirations are.

That's a nice, short list, right?  Nothing challenging there.  I think that I should add a reminder to go back and read the list at the beginning of every month, or whenever I recognize that I am drifting from my charted course.

While there is something to be said for job satisfaction, I suppose, I learned years ago that relying on something I truly love to earn my living makes me not love it so much anymore.  Therefore if I am going to pay my bills and do things I love, I need to make space in my life for the things I love, the things that make me feel good, and the things that are good for me.

Right now, reading and writing and knitting and cooking are the things that make me really happy, and not just because they help me escape from everyday stress and responsibility.

Even if I have no plans to turn writing into a career, it is a passion of mine, and I need to take it more seriously and devote more time to it.  NaNoWriMo taught me that lesson (and proved to me that I could do more than just scribble in a journal, occasionally post to a blog and let a web site languish).  Starting a private blog for a friend of mine is reinforcing the lesson.

Revision is starting to have a place and a purpose in my world, and revision makes for better writing.  I'm not revising the novel just yet, but it's definitely on the project list.  In the meantime, smaller pieces are getting more attention.

After a while, maybe I can eventually stop being afraid of exposing my writing to the outside world and see what happens.

I have given up the web site I never really built because I ended up making the project so complicated in my head that it actually kept me from actually writing, either for it or for any other project I might want to work on or even start.  Besides, why pay for a web site when I can blog for free?  I may come back to the web site idea some day, but not until I have the material.

Therefore, with one failing project put out of it's misery, I need to come up with a new one, right?

One of the crazier notions I have had over the last few days is the Million Word March.

A million is a thousand thousand.  At the rate of a thousand words a day, it would take me a thousand days to write a million words, which works out to approximately thirty-three months.

Those calculations got me thinking about how much writing I do and the kinds of writing I do -- for work and for pleasure -- and I started to wonder if I could write a million words in a year.

Success in this endeavor would require that I write two thousand seven hundred and forty words a day.  Every single day. For an entire year.

I started looking around for a little perspective and point of comparison.

NaNoWriMo was all about word count.  The goal was to write one thousand six hundred and sixty-seven words a day every single day for a month to end up with a total of fifty thousand.  I had trouble with the every single day part, but getting a thousand or so words down at a time turned out not to be as much of a challenge as I expected, especially when I was really on a roll and the creative juices were flowing.  I tended to write madly on the weekends to make up for my lack of discipline during the week.  I think that my biggest day was about seven thousand words.  Maybe eight.

One of the coolest things about NaNoWriMo was that the closer I got -- probably about the time I hit the forty thousand word mark -- the more motivated I was to finish and the higher a priority the project became.  It was the first time in a long time that I had any sort of real focus.

Also in the course of November I read a piece of advice which recommended writing three hours a day, six days a week.  Not reading or researching or revising.  Only writing.  Strictly new content.  Could I write almost three thousand words in three hours?  Quite likely.  Could I do it every day for a year?  Not so sure about that one.

So am I going to write a million words this year?  I doubt it.  What I am going to do is write more, and not only quantity.  I'm going to spend more time writing with focus and purpose and improve the quality as I go.  Give myself little assignments and write multiple drafts.  Then I might rewrite the whole scene from a different point of view.  Begin exploring the realm of possibility.

Where will your possibilities take you this year?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year! - Here's to starting again

I have always found New Year's to be a rather arbitrary holiday, but I suppose that time ought to be marked in some fashion if we are ever going to manage to keep track of it, even though I am quite sure that it couldn't care less about being kept track of.

Also, it gives me an excuse to shamelessly steal a New Year's wish from Neil Gaimain and repost it here:

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

The full entry, with references to previous entries, is here:

And so, with the first decade of the 21st century out of the way, on to the next!